The First Two Years of the New Students for a Democratic Society
July 07, 2008
By Brian Kelly and Joshua Kahn Russell
Opportunities multiply as they are seized." - Sun Tzu
Why We Write
At a party recently, one of us was introduced as an organizer trying
to launch the "new" Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). The
person raised her eyebrows. "I don't know anything about the new
SDS," she said, "but it makes me think of a Beatles reunion tour with
none of the original members. Why would I want to see that?"
We were also skeptical of the idea at first. We knew we needed to
learn from movements and organizing traditions that have come before
us, and to root ourselves in history as part of moving forward. But
do we really need a half-assed reunion tour or more Sixties worship?
Surely, we thought, we should be building new organizations, not
trying to reignite old ones. And why would we want to restart one
with as fractious a history as SDS?
The new SDS celebrated its second birthday on Martin Luther King Jr.
day in 2008. The new organization bears little resemblance to the
original SDS. But building an organization with the same
attention-grabbing name, aspirations to inter-generational
organizing, and roots in student power and participatory democracy
hit a nerve in the US. Within a year, we had hundreds of chapters and
thousands of members across the country, the vast majority of them
new to organizing. SDS quickly became what is likely the largest
self-identified revolutionary youth organization in the country. It
has been an exciting time, producing lots of interest and
opportunities, as well as mistakes, disputes, frustrations, and
heartbreaks. Two years later, we want to step back and examine the
birth of SDS,[ii] distill the dynamics of its growth, and draw some
lessons from the challenges we have faced. While we have each played
different roles within the organization, we have also each done our
best to maintain a broad view of the national direction of our group.
More than anything, SDS has so far been a vehicle to introduce
political organizing to young people across the United States. This
introduction happens differently in different places, and there is
great diversity of SDS chapters on a local level. We will try to
explore the organizational dynamics of national organizing, while
recognizing that these national dynamics have not necessarily been
replicated in all local chapters, nor does it capture the experience
of SDS across the country in a uniform way.[iii]
Our hope in helping launch SDS was that it would become more than a
place for people to share ideas and more than a common banner under
which people could identify. We hoped it could be a space to
collectively assess the political moment, strategize about how to
engage it in a coherent way, and build a base of young organizers in
the US as part of a larger mass movement. If we could coordinate our
efforts across the country, we reasoned, young radicals would no
longer remain isolated, feeling like they had to reinvent the wheel.
Participatory democracy, with mechanisms to make quick decisions and
respond immediately to changes in our political landscape, could make
SDS an organization that effectively tackles pressing political
problems and makes meaningful contributions to larger movements as
young people. Despite its accomplishments, SDS has faced serious
organizational challenges and setbacks. If SDS is unable to meet
these challenges, it is difficult to imagine helping to build the
mass base we need to build a new society.
SDS is on the brink of what may be a make-or-break year. In exploring
both the possibilities and challenges within this young organization,
we have identified a spectrum of assumptions about how change
happens. While many members came to SDS with at least some analysis
of how society works, SDS has engaged in little political education
or internal debate about what we think it will take to build a
revolutionary movement. Most SDS projects and adventures continue to
be informed by a mixed and often contradictory set of approaches,
tools, and biases that flow from a number of unexamined assumptions.
If SDS is to overcome its own contradictions, it needs to be more
intentional in collectively building an understanding of how people
can change society. We see social change as happening through the
collective organized action of millions of people. To accomplish
this, we need clarity about where we are going and about the
commitment required to get there. This means navigating the immediate
decisions that organizers must make with an eye to the practical
tasks involved in achieving larger goals. Rather than become
paralyzed by insular searches for "purity of politics and process"
detached from the needs of movement-building, we must create
organizational vehicles capable of compelling large numbers of people
to move forward together. SDS must focus on important political
issues of our time and engage them decisively if it wants to avoid
collapsing into a marginal network of self-referential activists.
Where Were We? National and Left context
It's easy to mistake reasoned disillusionment for apathy. In a now
infamous New York Times op-ed entitled "Generation Quiet," Thomas
Friedman claimed that youth today embody an apathetic student
culture, more interested in blogging about social change than
actually creating it. Professors across the nation decry the level of
disengagement they see in their students.
By launching SDS, we thought we could prove them wrong. We believed
that skepticism and disillusionment are different from apathy.
Disenchanted skeptics understand that change needs to be made, they
just don't believe it can be done. Those who are apathetic, on the
other hand, just don't care. It is no coincidence that the most
popular forms of progressive media in the US are based on sarcasm and
comedy. The Onion, The Colbert Report, and The Daily Show are popular
because they speak to the reasoned disillusionment of our generation.
Young people do not need to be convinced that society is broken. What
our generation needs is a sense of agency. We need to show each other
that change is possible, that there are ways of reorganizing society,
and that there are groups with a plan to make it happen. By rooting
itself in the tradition of an older organization of the same name,
SDS hit that nerve amongst students. The result was an attractive
force for lots of new (progressive, mostly white) people, many of
whom had never had any experience in social movements, as well as
young radicals who were excited to feel a part of something big for
the first time.
Meanwhile, the increasingly transparent atrocity of the Iraq War was
politicizing students across the country. SDS was largely a response
to the political void on American campuses: there was no national,
multi-issue, radical student formation. The Iraq War, along with
domestic attacks on civil liberties and human rights (especially the
aftermath of Hurricane Katrina), was a central force in politicizing
youth and students, but no one was connecting local student anti-war
work into a national framework with the political breadth that SDS
seemed capable of.
Pre-existing student anti-war groups chose to affiliate as SDS
chapters, becoming our organizational grounding. At Brian's school,
Pace University, the anti-war group became an SDS chapter. On Josh's
Brandeis campus, the group Radical Student Alliance also affiliated.
The name SDS gave us the kind of burst we needed to gain national
attention and to connect with others all across the country who took
on the name and were thus thrown together to build SDS.
So, what is SDS?
SDS began as a concept - a meme[iv] that was set loose among youth in
the United States. Embedded in the idea was the possibility of a
national youth and student-led organization that could transcend
ideological factionalism, carry explicitly revolutionary politics,,
and ground itself in youth power and participatory democracy. That
idea has opened a doorway into movements for social, environmental,
racial, and economic justice for thousands of young people in the US.
Within its first year, SDS chapters led student walkouts for
immigrant rights on May Day, organized large youth contingents at
anti-war demonstrations, successfully blocked the deployment of
weapons from ports, shut down military recruitment centers, fought
education budget cuts, waged free speech battles, ousted a University
president, built student unions, ran for student government seats,
and practiced solidarity with local community campaigns. Some of the
early, more visible chapters of SDS recruited members through catchy
media stunts, pushing the boundaries of acceptable protest in order
to spark debate, controversy, and to excite a base of
The flashy actions included civil disobedience at major military
recruitment centres in New York and New England, and shutting down
ports in the Northwest and Southwest to stop the shipment of war
supplies and the redeployment of soldiers. We held a handful of
fast-moving, highly visible free speech campaigns at Pace University,
the University of Central Florida, and Ohio University. The
organization publicized college administration crackdowns on SDS
organizing, which included arrests, threats of expulsion of student
activists, prohibiting SDS chapters from forming as school clubs, and
barring them from flyering, tabling, or holding events on campuses.
The result was a stampede, of sorts. Thousands of small white SDS
buttons found their way onto the jackets of young people across the
country. SDS organizers networked at conferences, held city-wide
meetings across the Northeast, and built an online presence to
recruit members. But the vision for SDS was so broad that it could
include almost anybody, and thousands rushed to join an organization
that didn't have the capacity to keep up. Those who joined in the
beginning struggled to push this capacity forward in what often felt
like a vacuum of experience, structure, and goals. We all made a lot
SDS members in big cities like New York, where a myriad of activist
groups already existed, had some support (legal, emotional, and
physical) for actions that occasionally resulted in arrests. Most of
the time, actions, even those leading to arrest, didn't put members
at long-term risk. The arrests helped us push boundaries that had
constrained youth groups for some time, and the resulting media
attention helped build SDS by exciting people about building popular
resistance to the war. But we also faced challenges. In New York,
flashy actions put SDS on the defensive. Chapters were often stuck in
crisis mode and forced into anti-repression campaigns and legal
battles that distracted them from the main goal of organizing. More
problematically, methods used successfully in big cities were
replicated elsewhere, often in areas where they were not useful or effective.
In a joint action, Pace University SDS and New School SDS, joined by
the Pace Muslim Student Association,New SchoolWomen of Color
Organization, and Sustainability Committee, successfully shut down a
military recruiting station in downtown Manhattan. The action drew
over a hundred young activists, many new to activism, and culminated
in a 30-person sit-in inside the station. Twenty people were
arrested. The action increased our commitment, excitement, and
numbers. Several days later, a small group of students tried a
similar action in Ohio in a context that lacked the support
infrastructure in place in New York. Two students were arrested. Were
it not for emergency fundraising through informal networks (SDS has
no official structure to accommodate fundraising), one of our
activists would have spent up to 30 days in jail. While done with the
best of intentions and enthusiasm, the action in Ohio did not
mobilize a base of students, nor deepen people's connection and
commitment. It was an example of a common dynamic in SDS: a formulaic
approach to activism in which certain tactics are applied
universally, arrest is romanticized, and expressive, symbolic tactics
are preferred to planned strategy and clarity of goals.
Throughout the following years, the most exciting and compelling
factors in SDS's initial success often had these contradictory
results. These factors prevented SDS from consolidating and making
meaningful contributions to the movement, and threatened its vitality
and sustainability. Many dynamics that led to the organization's
membership growth have also left it volatile, vulnerable, and unable
to sustain the true growth it needs to "stampede" on the order of
magnitude that our times require. While viral promotion inspired
thousands to sign up, SDS did not have the capacity to handle the
intensity of interest, nor did it have a plan for building that
capacity. We didn't even have a legitimate space to discuss creating
a plan. National support work was often invisible, unsupported, or
outright attacked,[vi] and many SDSers felt isolated on their campuses.
Still, the process of building local coalitions, waging campaigns,
engaging in street actions, organizing training camps, coordinating
conventions, and debating ideas, have been opportunities for young
organizers across the country to grow and learn. Transformational
experiences like these have helped turn energetic young people into
long-haul organizers with a holistic analysis of how society works
and a vision of how it could work differently. The role of those
doing national work has been to create a context for these
transformational experiences, in an effort to deepen the analysis,
commitment, leadership, and connection of SDSers across the country.
Birth Stories and Growing Pains: Giving Form to the Stampede
Almost immediately, SDS attracted media attention for which it was
unprepared. Without a coherent, unified message about who we were or
what we wanted, media attention was handled in a haphazard way.
Without conscious control over our own narrative, two basic SDS
stories emerged. One was generated in the media, and one developed
internally, but neither fully captured the birth story of the new SDS.
The media story has been a version of the "great leader" myth: a high
school student named Pat (sometimes a student named Jessica is
included in the story) linked up with original SDS founder Al Haber
(sometimes other older allies are included), and together they built
the organization through charismatic leadership. Aside from its being
a misleading portrayal, this story hurt SDS organizationally, as the
founders came under fire for "trying to take credit" for the group's
growth and seeking personal fame, something neither Pat Korte nor
Jessica Rapchick wanted to do. It's no surprise that this story is
repeated in the mainstream media: it resonates deeply with a dominant
narrative in society that sees social change arising from the acts of
exceptional individuals rather than from the collective work of many.
The second story emerged internally within SDS, and had some truth to
it. It was more grassroots, and rejected focusing on individuals,
instead highlighting the diversity and plurality of perspectives and
experiences of SDS chapters across the country. While this story
comes from a healthy place of not wanting to chart our history though
the biographies of a few individual leaders, it has also complicated
SDS's understanding of itself as an organization. This story
reinforces a problematic conception of change as basically
spontaneous: random collections of people come together, take action,
and this somehow adds up to a coherent movement. It reinforces a myth
that "we have no leaders," instead of developing an analysis around
leadership that is collective, bottom-up, and democratic.
What both stories leave out is the fact that there were organizers
who helped build SDS nationally and actively sought to move the whole
group forward. This is the third, untold "organizer story" of SDS.
There were, from the beginning, organizers who tried to create a
space for many people to talk about their perspectives, creating (and
exposing SDSers to) transformative experiences, making alliances,
building strategic organizational connections and allies, organizing
in the field, intentionally crafting memes that spread across the
nation, and developing organizers who can take initiative. By leaving
this work out of the story, important organizing lessons indeed,
important understandings of what organizing is are lost.
Since our formation, SDSers interested in national coordination
provided the organization with an internet hub (including a national
website, chapter websites, and too many listservs), which helped
develop communication and relationships among members and disseminate
information on activities. Doing national work meant answering
constant phone calls and emails, welcoming and providing resources to
new chapters, linking those chapters up with opportunities other
organizations were making available, dealing with the media overload
when no means of national media coordination existed (such as putting
reporters in touch with SDSers across the country, helping SDSers
prep for interviews, diversifying the pool of people speaking to the
media), forming working groups, proposing and fundraising for
national and regional gatherings such as conventions and training
camps, and linking up chapters with trainers and local organizers who
could share experience and teach organizing skills.
There was no clearly-defined group of people doing this work. Most
members who took part fell in and out of those roles, often
unintentionally. While some members feared the development of a
"national elite" a clique of insiders conspiring to make the
organization in their own image those doing this work wished and
argued for democratic structures to share the workload. Without
legitimized roles, there was no way to know who was doing what (or
what needed to be done). It sometimes felt like an uphill battle
making the case that legitimized roles did not equal "hierarchy."
This component of nurturing organizational growth required the slower
work of organizing, outreach, recruitment, and mentorship. It has
been an effort to harness quantitative growth in a qualitative
direction in order to build the organization for the long-term,
develop its leaders and grassroots organizers, increase their
commitment and numbers, and create a collective identity and
politics. This is no small task. Starting a stampede is much easier
than shaping it and providing the focus that can help it develop. It
quickly became apparent that without clear goals, we could have no
clear strategic orientation.
This lack of strategic direction played itself out in myriad of ways,
from our (lack of) structure, to our (mis)understanding of
participatory democracy, to problems in addressing dynamics of power
and oppression inside and outside the organization.
The "old" SDS was an organization viewed as firmly situated in the
white left. When the call was put out to re-form SDS, news traveled
in certain networks, most of which were dominantly white. The legacy
of SDS relates to some folks and not others, and the makeup of the
new SDS often reflects that.
Despite SDS often boasting that it's initial base was in community
colleges and public schools, this did not translate into work
relevant to campus workers[vii] or internal dynamics that
accommodated the needs of working class participation and
leadership.[viii] Early on, class was often talked about exclusively
in the context of 'solidarity' with workers, not in terms of building
our power to make campuses more accessible through open admissions,
tuition freezes, or defending affirmative action policies, even
though these fights were often being waged locally by SDSers, through
the building of student unions, and running for student government,
Early patterns of patriarchy emerged in our first year, as young
organizers often fell into traditional socialized roles. It was
common in some chapters (and nationally) for men to dominate meetings
and informal leadership positions. The contributions of women were
often less visible. In different areas of the country, women were
left out of some circles of information and political development.
In the past two years, SDS has begun learning how to challenge these
patterns, start becoming an empowering space for people who face
institutional oppressions, and sharing power among members.
In the wake of the organization's formation, many SDS organizers took
the challenge of integrating liberatory practices[ix] into every
level of the organization very seriously. Issues of race and gender
in particular (and to a lesser degree, class and sexuality) came to
the forefront at our conferences. The struggle to ensure that the
group's work is accountable to people most affected by the issues we
address is complex in an organization with goals as vague as SDS's.
Some chapters formed alliances with student organizations of color
(Brandeis SDS, for example, joined Latino and Black student groups on
campus in coordinating a student strike on May Day 2006). The push to
do more liberatory organizing has produced efforts ranging from a new
Northeast Katrina and Rita survivor support working group, to local
organizing with immigrant organizations mobilizing against gentrification.
Unfortunately, for a period, SDS's approach to issues of
accountability and oppression made members look exclusively inward
and lose sight of our actual work combating oppression in society.
Some chapters simply stopped organizing and became paralyzed by
internal process, while others seemed more concerned about enforcing
the "correct" use of language than working together.
When there were too many male voices representing SDS in the media,
the response too often was to attack those speaking rather than to
create systems of support for others to publish and be represented.
Rather than looking at media exposure as a chance to articulate a
youth perspective or promote our organization and work, the focus was
exclusively on internal fairness "did this person give a quote to a
media source before? Why are they doing it again?" SDS members who
spoke publicly or published more than once were seen as hogging
space, even though among progressive media there was virtually
unlimited "space" - when SDSers write well, there is an audience. In
the name of "organizer development" it was seen as their
responsibility to step back so that we could develop leadership in
more people. This hurt our ability to do genuine leadership
development, as SDSers were prevented from having the opportunity to
practice and refine their skills. After one turn at bat, they had to
go back to the bench. "Step up, Step back" is often a useful mantra
in limited space (like a meeting with a time limit), but it is
confusing and sometimes problematic when it is the only guideline
with which to navigate these issues.
The important impulse to ensure the representation of people from
different experiences, communities, and identities in the media and
on the frontlines of actions was taken to an extreme, often to the
point of ignoring the actual content of media work and actions. When
so much energy is focused on having on-point personal politics, it is
easy to prioritize image over everything else.
The response to men in the media illustrates a larger pattern in SDS
of viewing organizing as a zero-sum game. The zero-sum competitive
angle that people took on issues of empowerment focused exclusively
on who was "messing up" rather than on how to actively support and
create space for more people to develop and to support the leadership
of people from oppressed communities and backgrounds. It often relies
on and reinforces a simplistic dichotomization between "privileged"
This is a crucial lesson for those interested in this kind of
organizing work. When the focus is on moving the whole group forward,
we are challenged to actively create more space for people to grow
and develop by organizing panels, speaking tours, campaigns, training
camps, news bulletins and other organizational publications. This
doesn't mean ignoring problematic behavior in individuals, or not
developing good personal politics, but these things should be done
with a view to our collective goals.
The zero-sum habit also reinforced SDS's inability to assess its own
capacity. Time spent engaging with these issues meant ignoring the
liberatory work that was not being done as a result. An example of
this was a tendency towards "caucusing-as-a-formula." SDS would
caucus by constituency/identity at every gathering.[x] Caucusing was
not seen as a tool that makes sense in certain contexts (for example
as a mechanism to ensure decision-making empowers marginalized
SDSers), instead it was seen as the entirety of our work against
oppression. Students would make long pilgrimages to weekend
conventions where entire days were spent caucusing, with little
agenda or direction. Often little else was accomplished. Caucuses can
play many crucial roles. They can act as support structures and safe
spaces for groups. Yet when they are approached as "the way" to
address collective liberation, it once again takes a good idea to an
This may have been a necessary process given the stage of growth of
the organization; while dealing with complex issues of power as a
group for the first time, SDS needed to spend time
consciousness-raising, naming dynamics, and talking about them.
Because SDS went through that process, members now stand on firmer
ground from which to engage these issues, and spend less time at
regional conventions caucusing for that purpose. It is a hopeful
departure from a tendency in SDS to search for strict formulas.
Although frustrating, many of these painful bumps have been important
experiences. The level of analysis around these issues within
national organizing is far deeper now. It will be an ongoing
challenge to make sure that this is true for its membership and base.
SDS still must grapple with the content of its work, and how to
develop meaningful relationships with local communities when so often
students are transplanted for a short period of time to campuses
isolated from the lives of people in surrounding areas. In its own
struggle around power, privilege, and oppression, SDS must think
about the role of students in societal transformation, considering
our institutional and social location(s).
Yet an approach is emerging that is less inclined toward insularity
and picking people apart, and more oriented toward thinking through
building an empowering and inclusive organization to fight for social
justice. Other organizations have become stuck in the insular phase,
and have been torn apart as a result. Recent SDS conventions have
included roundtable discussions about approaches to this work that
can help make SDS a welcoming environment for new people, make our
work relevant and meaningful to lots of different folks, and avoid
unintentionally alienating prospective members. Chapters increasingly
have experiences to share with one another, taking concepts like
solidarity out of the conceptual realm and grounding them in experience.
To continue on this trajectory, SDSers need to be collectively
invested in relevant campaigns around which to build unity -
political work that is distinct from the work of building the
organization. Without concrete campaigns to focus our energies, many
members feel no reason to work together towards something greater
despite differences in perspective, and relatively small
disagreements can be magnified to epic proportions and distract us
from the importance of our work.
When SDS began, the organization didn't have a shared definition of
what we meant by "participatory democracy." It was a catch-all term
aimed at loosely defining our vision for society as well as our
internal structure. Most organizations are built by a relatively
small number of people getting together and laying out vision, then
goals, then structure, and theninviting people to join. SDS was
launched in reverse: a concept spread throughout the country and then
we were left with the tremendous task of getting hundreds of young
people to come to some agreement about what we were about and what
the organization should look like.
Defining terms like "participatory democracy" and agreeing on what
types of processes and decision-making models make sense takes time
and discussion - lots of it. Without a mechanism for having those
discussions - we still do not have any meaningful forum for
organization-wide discussion - members across the country have
continued to define things very differently. The result has been
chaotic. The only mandate and obligation emerging from our first
national convention in 2006 was that the 2007 national convention
would be a constitutional convention to determine the organization's
structure. The task was to bring together hundreds of people, many of
whom did not know or trust one another, had never made decisions in
large groups, and did not share common political and organizational
assumptions about what SDS is or could be ...and somehow decide what
the organization should look like. Proposals ranged from detailed
systems of councils, all the way to arguments against any kind of
structure at all. Some members came demanding strict consensus
decision-making for all 300 participants while others wanted a
supermajority for votes.
Almost all the structure proposals had one thing in common: they were
ideologically driven. As an organization, we had no process for
developing a sense of what we wanted to do, and then coming up with
an appropriate organizing model. Instead, people proposed structures
that were rarely designed to meet concrete needs. The debate was
often framed by concepts like "decentralization" versus
"centralization" - an abstract theoretical simplification, and
ultimately a distracting framework which kept us from talking about
In the absence of any level of agreement, the default assumption was
often that participatory democracy meant "we all get an equal say in
every decision" or that "no decisions can be made unless everyone in
SDS is consulted." That meant a free for all: it engendered a sense
of entitlement and pandered to the loudest and most extreme
positions.[xi] For example, those who wanted strict consensus
decision-making for the whole convention attempted to kick out the
facilitators when a vote did not go their way. Instead of engaging
one another with humility and openness, SDSers engaged one another
with arrogance and combativeness. There was little recognition that
learning how to organize and developing politically were processes
that we were all going through, or that many of us had different
levels of experience to contribute. SDS was unable to share or learn
from the experience of its own members. The atmosphere further
alienated many new members from engaging with a collaborative process.
The planning for the 2007 convention involved weekly open conference
calls. Notes were sent out to national listservs, and open working
groups were formed with great care to ensure geographic
representation. Countless calls and requests to join the planning
committee were sent to members. A convention bulletin went out
regularly.[xii] It was the most participatory planning process either
of us have ever seen in an all-volunteer, all-youth organization. And
still, the 50+ convention organizers did not feel legitimized or
empowered to make basic decisions about how the convention would run.
The role of conference organizers was to create a space for members
to voice their ideas and for some decisions to be made about the
organization. Early on, it was proposed on a conference call that we
form a group of people[xiii] who would be responsible for seeing the
actual event through from start to finish.[xiv] This proposal was
shot down as an "authoritarian centralization of power." The work
still needed to be done, but no one was officially empowered to do
it. Informal networks based on experience and personal relationships
emerged, and a small group of people felt tremendous pressure to hold
the convention together. This work could easily have been shared by a
larger group of people delegated to play that role. Whispers and
groaning about informal leadership permeated the convention floor.
Ironically, those performing these functions were so busy trying to
create space for the convention that they could not even participate
in the debates about the future of their own organization. In an
attempt to model transparency, these members took the chance to get
on stage and describe the convention dynamic, planting the idea that
without formalized roles, informal leadership will inevitably fill
the vacuum.[xv] While this was perhaps a step forward in SDS's
thinking, it was still one step away from understanding that there
are different levels of both formal and informal leadership in all
organizations and that this is a positive thing as long as it is
intentional, transparent, and democratic.
It was an ideological orientation - based on a view of organization
as inherently limiting and of social change as spontaneous - that
made some SDS members focus on "protecting themselves" from bad
individuals who they thought were seeking to control the organization
and lock them out. Rather than greeting other SDSers with the
question "what can we build together?" the approach was "how can I
defend myself and my autonomy from whatever you want to do?"
"Autonomy" was defined in terms of wanting to be autonomous from one
another, not as about being responsible to each other and to the
larger group in order to collectively win autonomy from oppressive
institutions. This prevented us from creating a meaningful structure
that could meet our national needs of supporting members and
chapters, and organizing for a new world.
The effect of this structurelessness on high school students serves
as an important example. SDS has a growing number of high school
members who are organizing, trying to organize, or who have expressed
interest in organizing an SDS chapter. Many live in areas where no
communities of activists exist, and where it is tremendously
difficult to develop analysis and skills. While some SDS members at
well resourced universities and colleges, or in cities where activist
communities exist, might not see the concrete need for national
infrastructure, that lack of infrastructure has severely effected our
ability to provide our often-isolated high school (and less resourced
college) members with support, resources, and organizing ideas that
fit their context.
In contrast to the "structure" debate, many of the organization's
vision proposals were soundly grounded in organizing needs. They
centered on SDS being relevant to society, rather than cultivating a
marginalizing subcultural identity; on being accountable to the
communities we work in, as well as to one another; on student
solidarity with workers; on grounding ourselves in long-haul struggle
and long-term strategic thinking; on taking seriously our desire to
win a new society; on grounding ourselves in organizing, rather than
simply activism; on a commitment to mentorship and leadership
development; on learning from the past and reinventing our movements
for the future; on practicing participatory democracy; on engaging in
liberatory politics; on having a holistic approach to our analysis;
and on being bold in our vision for the future. These vision
documents were an example of SDS organizers reframing our work around
an internal culture that prefigures the participatory democracy we
want to achieve, while always keeping our focus on building our power
and growing our base.
While there is often a disconnect between affirming these values in
principle on the one hand, and a certain reluctance to confront the
organizational challenges involved in making them a practical reality
on the other, the overwhelming enthusiasm for vision documents
addressing these issues signals the latter's necessity, even as it
highlights the contradictory assumptions and political positions held
by many SDS members.
Though SDS now has between 120 and 150 chapters, we have received
more than 400 chapter applications, and many thousands of membership
applications. What would happen if a national organization had been
there to answer all those applications and to connect members with
each other, and with resources, ideas, mentors, and allies? What if
our high school members were taken seriously - if SDS was a space
where they could develop their leadership and skills, while
empowering them with the tools they need to educate themselves and
What would SDS's relationship to its racial demographics be if it had
an organizing model that could nurture public high school organizing,
and not have the default focus be on the universities that are so
often bastions of whiteness and privilege? What kinds of organizing
insights would SDS have if it could learn from battles that high
school students of color across the country are currently waging?
What ways could we take leadership from different sectors of youth
and truly embody our name?
SDS chapters across the country have been engaging in anti-war
organizing, but have not built a national campaign to serve as a
focus for this work. What kind of contributions to the anti-war
movement could SDS make if this organizing was done more coherently?
What will happen if the U.S. declares war on Iran - will SDS be able
to effectively mobilize that very day, issue press releases and
clearly express youth outrage and influence the national debate? Or
will organizers have their hands tied because "no one can speak for
SDS"? Will we have the space needed to make organizational decisions
at all? What kind of capacity would the organization have if it had
been able to tap the natural base of older, original SDSers for major
fundraising in order to put full-time field organizers on the ground
across the country? What if SDS was able to empower people to
represent the organization and to actually participate in coalitions?
Can SDS hope to be relevant in the absence of the capacity to relate
to other forces within our broader movements?
The issue at hand is not just what kind of structure SDS develops.
It's about our priorities and organizing - our internal structure and
process must complement these things. SDS still has yet to develop a
democratic, participatory organizing model to meet the needs of a
national organization with the capacity to mobilize a mass base. If
we had taken this seriously, our little stampede in the beginning
might have become the true stampede we need: hundreds of thousands of
young radicals getting organized.
The work of an organizer means taking political risks and constantly
engaging new ideas. It means highlighting our own mistakes in order
to illustrate a point and model accountability. The work of pushing
SDS forward has been largely invisible within SDS, which has
prevented more members from taking it on and threatens the
sustainability of that work, if not the organization itself. As SDS
begins to articulate its own story, and breaks through both the
media-driven "great leader birth story" and the internal "spontaneous
birth story" in favor of one that includes the important role of
organizing aimed at pushing the whole group forward, this will help
to demystify organizing, experience, leadership, and other concepts
SDS has struggled with. It will also help to clarify the task of
building a relevant mass movement of young people aimed at
revolutionizing our country.
The original Students for a Democratic Society, in its mission
statement, posited that revolutionaries should seek "relevance
through the continual focus on realities and on programs necessary to
effect change at the most basic levels of economic, political and
social organization. [They] feel... the urgency to put forth a
radical, democratic program whose methods embody the democratic
vision." In two sentences, the old SDS outlined some of the central
ways in which political organizers must relate to those around them.
What are our political realities? What is our political moment?
A staggering 80% of people in the United States are currently unhappy
with the direction of our country.[xvi] This year presents us with an
opportunity to engage with millions of young people who are excited
about the prospect of some form of real change in our country. Hope
for change, which is embodied for many in Barack Obama's campaign for
the White House, is causing thousands of young people to talk about
politics for the first time. Primary voter turnout in some states
doubled, tripled, and even quadrupled its levels of the past.[xvii]
Like never before in our short lifetimes, the streets, cafés, bars,
dorms, and subway cars are all filled with the hopeful chatter of
young people talking about politics, society, and events around the
world. Without diving into the dramatic identity crisis the US left
seems to have around election years, and without fostering illusions
about Obama's policies, it is undeniable that there is a political
and ideological sea change underway in our country. The Obama
campaign represents merely a surface wave on an ocean of
possibilities for tilting the political landscape in our favor. Obama
is simply saying the right things and using the right language, at
the right time. Radicals building grassroots power, armed with a
vision of the future and a program to get there, can talk about our
politics using that same inspirational language, captivating and
inspiring the US public rather than alienating it.
Meanwhile the impending climate crisis is radicalizing progressives
who are quickly realizing that massive, comprehensive action is
required in order to avert the worst kind of environmental
catastrophe. Even many of those in power understand that we need an
overhaul of our very way of life if humanity is to survive. The
struggle will be over how that overhaul happens, who will benefit,
and what the outcome will be. Current student and youth groups
tackling climate change, such as Energy Action Coalition, have a base
of tens of thousands of young people, and that number is growing
exponentially. There is a public narrative emerging connecting
climate change to racism in the wake of hurricane Katrina, to war in
the wake of an oil and blood-soaked invasion of Iraq, indeed to the
very heart of the way the Empire operates. We may be headed toward an
opportunity to make quite a lot of change in a short amount of time.
Will the left seize that opportunity, or will we keep our heads in the sand?
As a movement, we have the task of building the political
infrastructure needed to politicize and radicalize millions of young
people - building their commitment, leadership, analysis, confidence,
and ability to effect fundamental change. The degree to which we take
this task seriously will influence how well we can use future
political opportunities to our advantage. Conversations about the
current political moment and its implications for our organizing
should be elevated to the level of highest importance. Will there be
space for them in SDS?
SDS has a tremendous opportunity to take advantage of the creativity,
innovation, and passion of its young organizers by making itself a
place where we can have these conversations, and get to work on the
concrete tasks of build a revolutionary mass movement that can help
change the course of history.[xviii] We have described some of the
patterns and assumptions that have held SDS back, but these didn't
originate with us. Indeed, this is where much of the U.S. left is
stuck. We should be committed to movement building more than we are
committed to strict, ideologically-rooted, process. And we should
want to win more than we want to be content knowing we're right. We
need to move beyond being marginalized, self-identified radicals,
content to bicker with each other on the fringes, and towards an
organizing model that seeks to help collectively move millions of
people towards liberation. This is the central lesson we have learned
from our first two years of organizing in the new Students for a
Joshua Kahn Russell is a 23 year old grassroots organizer and trainer
at Rainforest Action Network. He spends much of his time on the road,
building and supporting a network of activist groups across the
country. In between strategy trainings, helps develop young
grassroots leaders, coordinates actions, helps groups build their
capacity, coordinates major activist gatherings, and works to bridge
movements for racial justice and the environment.
Brian Kelly is a 21 year old, revolutionary youth organizer,
currently based out of New York, U.S.A.For the past two years, he has
been an organizer with Students for a Democratic Society, and is also
on the national council of the Student Environmental Action Coalition
- both in the United States - addressing the War in Iraq, the
environmental crisis, and youth and student rights and power.You can
contact him at email@example.com, through his website at
http://walkingbutterfly.com or through AIM/GTalk at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In early 2006, Josh and Brian were core organizers in reviving,
launching and building the "new" Students for a Democratic Society
(SDS), a multi-issue youth & student led group, which in less than a
year had grown to over 150 chapters and nearly 3,000 members nationwide.
[i] This piece was originally published in the Canadian Journal
Upping the Anti - www.uppingtheanti.org.
[ii]Unless otherwise specified, "SDS" refers to the "new"
organization, not the historical one.
[iii]Thank you to all of the SDSers who have looked at this piece and
given us feedback, including Harjit Singh Gill, Beth Slutzky, Jasper
Conner, Daniel Tasripin, Meaghan Linick, Madeline Gardner, Alex
Grosskurth, as well as friends and allies Max Elbaum, Clare Bayard,
Mark Rudd, Chris Crass, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Michael Albert, and Dan Berger.
[iv]A meme is a contagious, fast-spreading, self-replicating idea.
[v]This is in the context of national repression of civil rights and
liberties, and aggressive Republican-rule led by President Bush, none
of which seemed to show any signs of waning.
[vi]Some people in the organization believe that support work on a
national scale is inherently "top-down," and as a result assume that
anyone attempting to work in this way must be trying to "control"
them. Others simply have reservations about national coordination
de-centering an exclusive focus on local organizing. This is an
example of the wide gulf in assumptions about SDS's basic purpose, or
even about the definition of an organization. Reconciling such
disparate assumptions in lieu of a way for people to even connect to
meaningfully discuss them has been a tremendous challenge.
[vii]Some campuses, like Harvard SDS, ran campaigns supporting
security guards and custodial workers on campus. Pace SDS ran
campaigns supporting transportation workers and adjunct professors.
Some groups helped with Coalition of Immokalee Worker campaigns and
with United Students Against Sweatshops. This, however, was the
exception, not the norm.
[viii]Often conference calls were inaccessible to those without free
cell phone minutes, the lack of organized fundraising or a dues
structure meant that SDS had no capacity to fund travel scholarships
to national and regional events, and class was talked about in an
abstract theoretical way, divorced from addressing class divisions on
campuses and in communities.
[ix] In this piece, we use the term "liberatory politics" to refer to
what is often called "anti-oppression."
[x] Caucusing for SDS meant that we would set time aside (usually
about an hour and a half) for members of a particular constituency or
identity group to get together and discuss issues that come up in an
event as they affect them through that lens. In SDS we would often
caucus by gender, race, sexuality, class, and sometimes by age (high
school versus college).
[xi]Ironically, in the name of "direct democracy," when this model is
extended beyond a small homogenous group (like a chapter that has a
high degree of political unity), these relationships more resemble
the competition of a capitalist marketplace than cooperative social relations.
[xii]The precursor to our current SDS News Bulletin - a great example
of effective national coordination.
[xiii]There were different versions of this body of people proposed.
Ultimately a 'subcommittee' did end up forming, which voluntarily
disbanded. This was a different body than the one referred to here.
[xiv] Such as making all the evolving schedule changes, adjusting
space to compensate for late sessions or lost rooms, ensuring that
facilitation adapted to convention needs to make it through dozens of
complex proposals, dealing with emergencies and mistakes, and
generally picking up the pieces that inevitably fall through the
cracks. It meant organizing a convention that would be a
[xv]This had the consequence of turning "informal leadership" into a
negatively charged buzz word. Informal leadership, when done well is
an important and even necessary thing.
[xvi] Gallup Poll, taken from March 6-9 2008. For years of data from
multiple polling sources on whether or not people in the United
States think we are on the "right track" or "wrong track" see
[xvii] See the Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning &
Engagement (civicyouth.org) for more amazing statistics.
[xviii]The plethora of listservs points to an overload of internal
conversation that often distracts from assessing political questions
such as these. Other spaces will be required - such as study groups
which exist in some chapters, strategic and political discussions
rather than the focus on internal process and topical workshops at
gatherings, the writing and circulating of position papers on the
direction of our organization, and organizational mechanisms for SDS
to make a stand based on them...